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Review: Racism Provocative ‘Rasheeda Speaking’ 



Ora Jones, Tara Mallen and Lorraine Freund in Rivendell Theatre's "Rasheeda Speaking" by Joel Drake Johnson (Courtesy of Chicago Theater Beat)

Ora Jones, Tara Mallen and Lorraine Freund in Rivendell Theatre’s “Rasheeda Speaking” by Joel Drake Johnson (Courtesy of Chicago Theater Beat)

JENNIFER FARRAR, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — When the subject is racism, many people start to feel uncomfortable. Defensive or outraged; pick your side. It’s not a neutral topic, and “Rasheeda Speaking,”a new play by Joel Drake Johnson, doesn’t sugarcoat.

The New Group is presenting the dark comedy in a provocative production that opened Wednesday night off-Broadway, starring Ileen Wiest and Tonya Pinkins under Cynthia Nixon’s directorial debut. With that caliber of seasoned professionals, you know you’re going to get a rich theatrical experience despite the prickly subject matter.

Oscar-winner Wiest and Tony Award-winner Pinkins are both masterly in their portrayal of once-friendly co-workers in a doctor’s office. Their boss, a casually racist white surgeon, is played by Darren Goldstein as unctuous and manipulative. The doctor tries to persuade Ileen (Wiest) to make a secret record of anything her African-American co-worker, Jaclyn (Pinkins), does that he can use to make a case for firing her. His flimsy excuse is that Jaclyn doesn’t make eye contact with him, so he can’t trust her.

Pinkins is gloriously committed to her character, as Jaclyn figures out what’s going on and ramps up her campaign to keep her job. Pinkins makes Jaclyn both appealing in her situation and off-putting with her increasingly confrontative actions. Nixon’s taut direction allows for silences that are as tense as when the women are arguing.

Wiest makes Ileen seem so fragile and sensitive and just plain nice that the audience is more sympathetic to her, as the tension increases and humorous moments give way to hostile exchanges. The women’s desks are claustrophobically close, and the walls seem to close in as Pinkins, physically larger, keeps on pushing Ileen’s buttons in carefully worded provocations. Jaclyn reveals a defensive mean streak that makes the audience gasp more than once, and Wiest seems to shrivel in the unpleasant atmosphere.

Johnson has a gift for writing natural-sounding dialogue, and both women are gifted at shading the meaning of every line as their relationship breaks down. He’s incorporated many of the subtle ways that people’s prejudices can be revealed, as well as an occasional bombshell and some good old-fashioned eavesdropping to move things along. He puts some of the most cringe-worthy words into the mouth of an elderly patient, played with ever-so-sweet insensitivity by Patricia Conolly.

“Rasheeda Speaking” leaves a memorable impression of how passive-aggressive racism and suppressed prejudices play out in our everyday lives.



Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Arts and Culture

COMMENTARY: Note From New York As Reed’s “The Conductor” Completes Off-Broadway Run

If “The Conductor” never plays again, I will have been privileged to be part of its evolution from Zoom readings from a year ago to two full off-Broadway runs in 2023. That’s six weeks of live shows, 24 shows in all. But wouldn’t it be nice to have the show satirizing the Bay Area’s race politics actually have a run in the Bay Area?



By Emil Guillermo

Oakland resident Ishmael Reed’s 11th play, “The Conductor,” came to a close last week in New York.

If “The Conductor” never plays again, I will have been privileged to be part of its evolution from Zoom readings from a year ago to two full off-Broadway runs in 2023. That’s six weeks of live shows, 24 shows in all.

But wouldn’t it be nice to have the show satirizing the Bay Area’s race politics actually have a run in the Bay Area?

That would make it a homecoming of sorts for Kenya Wilson, who spent her early years in the Bay Area, the daughter of two members of the Black Panther Party, Walter and Tracy Wilson.

One of the perks of doing the show is being part of such a great group of actors. None of the cast members are household names yet. All are working, paid, professional actors still pursuing their dreams.

Wilson was part of a cast that included Brian Anthony Simmons as Warren Chipp, a fired SF Bay Area columnist; Sri Chilukuri as Shashi Parmar, an Indian American activist in the San Francisco school board recall; Monisha Shiva as Kala Parmar, a lecturer in women’s studies at a local college; Laura Robards and me as conservative television commentators Hedda Duckbill and Gabriel Noitallde.

A play about a diverse America should have a diverse cast, including understudies Joy Renee, Humzah Akbar, and Aaron Watkins.

I should note, Reed has cast me, a Filipino American, in all of the white roles (voice over only).

And then there was Wilson, who played reporter Melody Wells, fitting because Reed has subtitled the play “A Living Newspaper” after a 1930s WPA project where artists and writers took the subtext of the news into the theater to create informative and provocative works that took its cues from society as it unfolded.

And that adds to the significance of Wilson’s role in the play as a Black woman journalist. Not only does she get to spout the poetic literary lines of Reed, but she also gets to lay out factual information on Black women that makes audiences see her as their champion.

As an actress, Wilson admits she only knew about some of the powerful things she was given in Reed’s writing. She knew about the now-deceased writers Bell Hooks, Ntozake Shange, and Toni Morrison. But she also realized how politicized the education system is in America, as to who gets taught what ideas, and what ideas are simply ignored.

Black women, generally, are ignored.

“When it comes to Black women, we are on the bottom of the totem pole,” Wilson said. “I feel when we voice our experiences people don’t want to hear it, and they just assume that we’re all just complaining.”

In her one big scene, Wilson is not complaining but rather making the case for Black women.

“For instance … unintended pregnancies for African American women are 19 times higher than those of white women,” Wilson said. So are chlamydia and gonorrhea infection rates, as well as rates of cervical cancer and breast cancer. “And all of these things are reproductive and sexual in nature. And it just takes me back to times when my ancestors were enslaved, and we were there to breed for more slaves,” Wilson said. “And it’s not a coincidence to me that we have a higher chance of dying in childbirth. None of this is a surprise to me because this is a country that doesn’t care about Black people.”

Wilson’s key scene is a “debate” with an Indian American woman about the plight of Dalits, or lower caste “untouchable” women. Wilson always wins the audience back when, after the hearing about the plight of Dalits, Wilson responds, “Being a Black woman is no lottery prize.”

It’s a line that should also win back critics of Reed from years past who saw him as somehow anti-feminist.

“Definitely not this play,” said Wilson, who has already appeared in multiple productions this year, and is scheduled to appear in another play in Philadelphia. After a 14-year respite from acting, she’s been back at it the last six years and hopes to be on Broadway soon.

But she would definitely welcome a part in the further evolution of “The Conductor.”

Reed’s dubbing the play a “living newspaper,” is instructive. That may be the conceit that keeps “The Conductor” alive, with new iterations written by Reed and performed by a stable cast in real time, telling the story of America’s changing racial politics.

But would that be on some grassroots stage in the Bay Area? Or digitally via podcast or as radio drama?

Oakland resident Ishmael Reed’s “The Conductor” has closed off-Broadway for now, but its future is wide open.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. His one-man theater performance, “Emil Amok, Lost NPR Host: A Phool’s Filipino American History,” runs on Sept. 14 @930pm Eastern in New York this week.

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Oakland Post: Week of September 27 – October 3, 2023

The printed Weekly Edition of the Oakland Post: Week of September 27 – October 3, 2023



The printed Weekly Edition of the Oakland Post: Week of September 27 - October 3, 2023

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Bay Area

Writer Marc Spears Honored in Oakland

Bay Area leaders and key notables in the city of Oakland congratulated Marc Spears, NBA writer for Andscape/ESPN for receiving the 2023 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Curt Gowdy Media Award



Bay Area leaders and key notables in the city of Oakland congratulated Marc Spears, NBA writer for Andscape/ESPN for receiving the 2023 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Curt Gowdy Media Award. The event was held at Hiiiwav, a new location at 2781 Telegraph in Oakland recently purchased by Grammy Award-winner Bosko Kante and his wife Maya Kante. Pictured here, left to right, are Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce President Cathy Adams, Chef David Lawrence, Marc Spears, and Nola Turnage of Okta, Inc. Photo courtesy of Cathy Adams.

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